Honey Receives A Copy Of Dear Mad’m

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June 1, 2014 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 




By Honey van Blossom

(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste)

A package arrived in the mail with my cousin Little Barbara’s address in the top left hand corner.   I found a note inside the book in the package.  Little Barbara wrote she and her sister Daina thought I would enjoy reading a book about an eighty-year old woman who begins a new chapter in her life in the mountains of Trinity County, near where our Aunt Big Barbara taught in Blanchard Flat School in Hoosimbim Mountain during the Great Depression. 

I’m approaching seventy, and my cousins approach eighty.  This book seemed like it would be just the ticket to a new way to look at growing old.

What reading the book — and then following up with some research —  turned out to be was the revelation of a life that vividly soared without a safety net over a ranch in Stockton, literary San Francisco and a remote cabin near Happy Camp in Trinity County.   The author was not an eighty-year old; she was close to ninety when she finished writing it.

The yellow cover of the paperback Dear Mad’m, by Stella Walthall Patterson shows a drawing of an old lady running – as my mother and women of her generation used to say “like a bat out of hell” — down a mountain path accompanied by her racing dog.  A mule head sticks out behind the woman and her dog.  The dog is Vicki, and she will at a later point save Dear Mad’m from a cougar.  The mule is Pete.  After a sustained misunderstanding about who Pete was and what he was doing stuck in her outhouse, Mad’m and Pete will reach an accord.

Text beneath the dog says, “The refreshing adventures of a woman who at the age of eighty found a new life in the wilds of the Siskiyou Mountains near Happy Camp, California.”

I assumed the Siskiyou Mountains surrounded Siskiyou, which is on the eastern side of California.  I was wrong.  They are not near Siskiyou.   They are in Trinity County, about 200 miles north of Blanchard Road, right near the top of the state.    Like the character Dear Mad’m,  my default assumption is that everyone else is wrong.

As I began the book, I mistakenly assumed the 80 year-old writing the book was contemporary.   The mountains and its forests are timeless.  She arrived in an automobile to her mountain cabin.

She wrote her stove was from the sixties.  The drawing of it in the book, however, was a picture of a 19th century wood burning stove.  I assumed, the artist was wrong.  The real stove, I thought, must have been a Kelvinator or some tie-dyed hippie version of a stove.

Reading further, I saw Dear Mad’m wrote about visits with a girl from Happy Camp, a girl rather ashamed of her Indian heritage – that struck an anachronistic note.  The Hoopa are a sovereign people, and those were the closest Indians.     Dear Mad’m tells the girl that she had seen the queen of England when she was a child: Queen Victoria.  No contemporary of mine could have seen Queen Victoria when she was a child.  Queen Victoria died in 1901.  No ordinary California girl child would have been in England before 1901.

She doesn’t have electricity.  She reads at night by the light of a kerosene lamp.  She doesn’t have a phone.  No Internet.   I read the copyright date: 1955.

I wanted to know the backstory.  I wanted to know who this old woman with white hair and a rugged face was before she became an old woman.

No one who wrote as clearly, as humorously, as Stella Walthall Patterson wrote could have suddenly been able to write as well as she did without having spent a life-time writing.  Perhaps she wrote many letters.  People used to write a lot of letters.  My grandparents wrote many letters on a shared manual typewriter with five carbon papers behind them.   If the author was 80 when the book was published, then, she was born in she was born in 1875, about when my grandmother was born, I thought although I was wrong.

Dear Mad’m spends her days planting a vegetable garden, tinting sacks yellow with boiled onion skins, talking with people, cooking meals for Up-n-up and DearSir, baking pies, and she does not once mention paper much less a typewriter.  She also buys groceries – the social security act was passed in 1935, when she was sixty-nine, so perhaps she got money from that to live on.

When Dear Mad’m meets “Frenchy,” another inhabitant of the forest, he speaks to her in French and she ignorantly answers “Oui,” to everything he says in his flood of French.  Later, however, young French couples sitting in a car see her with goats and thinks she is a native goatherd.  She understands everything they say.  No ordinary mountain woman speaks French fluently.

Internet revealed Stella was born in 1866 in Stockton.  If she arrived in the mountains when she was 80, then the date of her arrival was 1946.  She was not, — as she presented herself  — a stranger to the Trinity County mountains.

The Winter 2003 Newsletter of the Will Creek China Flat Museum’s essay by Margaret Wooden called “History of the Patterson Ranch on Patterson Road,” showed that James B. Patterson bought the ranch in 1932.  The 1900 New River Census showed that Stella’s second husband James was born in 1883, which means he was seventeen years younger than his wife.

“ Blue River Advocate 1909
Mr. and Mrs. James B. Patterson, newly married arrived by steamer Wednesday from San Francisco and stopped a short time at Blue Lake on their way to their future home at Hawkins Bar in the western part of Trinity where the groom has a ranch of several hundred acres.   Mrs. Patterson was once the wife of ex-judge Augustus Belcher of San Francisco. She was well known here where she has made her home for some years with Mr. and Mrs. A. Brizard of Arcata. She is also quite well known in San Francisco and Los Angeles and has traveled extensively, having studies music in Europe. Her abilities in the literary line have given her prominence on this coast. It is said that for one story she wrote recently she received $700.
To those who have known her well, her second marriage was a surprise. Mrs. Patterson visited the Trinity section last year, but no on thought a romance was in progress.
There was nothing like a hint left by Mr. Patterson when he went to Los Angeles about three weeks ago. The happy Couple will make their home at Hawkins Bar.”  Hawkins Bar is 91.4 miles south of Happy Camp, near where Dear Mad’m was to live in a mining cabin 38 years later, long estranged from Patterson.

The Vermonter, Volume 6, revealed that Judge Edward A. Belcher was admitted to practice law in California in 1876.  He married Stella Burford Walthall in 1893.  The year he was married, Governor Markham appointed him to the San Francisco County Bench.  The judge began his college education at Putnam College but left before graduating in 1868 for California.  He studied for the Bar as a clerk in his brothers’ law office in Marysville.   (The California Bar allows clerks to become lawyers after five years of internship and does not require them to go to law school.)

If Belcher left college at, say, 20, then he would have been born about 1848, but Findagrave.com lists his birth year as 1845, which means he gave up on college when he was 23, he was 48 when he married Stella, and she was 27.  When Stella left him to go to Arizona to get a divorce in 1908 in order to marry Patterson, the judge was sixty-three, Stella was 42, and Patterson was 25.  Patterson had worked as the Belchers’ guide in their travels in the Siskiyou Mountains.

Plugging in different versions of her name, I found a story by her in the Overland Monthly in 1900, “Madam.” This was the time when Netta and Roscoe Eames began to publish Jack London stories in the Overland, which had been created by Bret Harte in the 1860s. I also found stories and a play written by her under various names in other magazines.   So, I figured, Stella was  one of the many women writers of the late 19th and early 20th century California who wrote about life in this state and earned a living at it.

In 1893, Ella Sterling Cummins wrote that a “rugged, picturesque literature,” evolved west of the Rockies, “(F)irst evolved and made known by means of the genius of Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, and Mark Twain.”

“There has been a list of books by California writers catalogued by a society of San Francisco women. In this list I find the names of ninety women and one hundred and fifty-five volumes. In the list of the Pacific Coast Woman’s Press Association I find the names of over one hundred women connected with matters of the pen and pencil. Besides, there are many (women writers unchronicled and unrecorded) who are connected with newspapers, or who have been occasional contributors all along the route for the past thirty years or more, making about fifty more.”

Stella invented herself first as a successful artist and writer who taught piano in San Francisco.  She re-invented herself as the wife of a staid older Republican judge.  She re-invented herself as the wife of a young mountain rancher.  When she wrote Dear Mad’m, she created a doppelganger of 80 who – unlike the real Stella, was strong and fit and also unlike the real Stella, a stranger to the Siskiyou Mountains.

I ordered from Amazon Dear Mad’m Who Was She?  (2012).

Stella’s father came from Virginia and her mother from Missouri.  Her father supported the secession of California after the Civil War.  He believed the Confederacy would win the Civil War.  Kevin Starr described Southerners heckling Thomas Starr King when he came to Stockton to urge California’s support of the union, backed by Jesse Benton Fremont.

Her two sisters died in childhood.  Her father died when she was seven, and her brother went to live with relatives.  Stella was sent to a series of boarding schools, resistant, she wrote, to any learning until she entered Mills Seminary for girls.  She was a “smoked banana” – bananas from Hawaii smoked in an oven to appear ripe whereas they were not were “smoked bananas.”  Her first poem was published in a newspaper when she was fourteen.  She wrote horror stories.  When Mills seminary became a college, she was one of its first students but she did not graduate.  She worked her way through as much college as she completed as an assistant teacher.

She was sent to France and went to school there and taught English.  Her great-nephew wrote that she could not have seen Queen Victoria because she went to school in France.  There were ships between France and England.  Stella could have gone to England, and she could have seen Queen Victoria.

She entered the literary world of San Francisco, writing for the Overland Monthly, Colliers, Century and other magazines. She knew Jack London and Ambrose Pierce, taught piano, and painted.  She took up smoking.   She exhibited her paintings.

.She left the judge and moved to Arizona for a year to establish residency and got a divorce there to avoid the scandal of a California divorce. The judge did not contribute to her support, so she may have taught school in Arizona.  She married her young lover in Los Angeles but the scandal caught up with them.

They lived in Trinity County but Stella often left for teaching jobs, working until she was 74.  They adopted a baby boy – Ralph – and fostered a girl, Thelma.  James worked on his farm, doing well until his last years when he got cancer – but by then, Stella and James had separated for many years.

After her separation from Patterson, she built it with the help of a subsidy from the federal government to housing during the Great Depression.   She continued to live in both Yreka and the cabin near Happy Camp.

Dear Mad’m lived out her years in the forest.  Stella, however, lived in a tiny trailer that Thelma had made for her, near her larger trailer in Redding, and she grew increasingly ill.  Dear Mad’m has “young legs.”  Stella was afflicted with severe pain and swelling in one of her legs, the result of an injury before she moved to the mining cabin.

Her old age wasn’t Dear Mad’m’s bold free and independent old age.   She had a heart attack, and she grew frail.  Towards the end of her life, she moved back up to the mountains and lived with DearSir, and he took care of her until her death on December 23, 1955, at age 90.   She willed her Yreka house to him.   Patterson contributed $500 to her funeral, and he died a year later.  Judge Belcher had died in 1931, at 84.





Nina Baym, Women Writers of the American West, 1833-1927 (2012)

Ida Rae Egli, No Rooms of Their Own: Women Writers of Early California (1992)




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